The 1956 Olympic Flame Hoax

Mar 31, 2023 0 comments

The 1956 Summer Olympics was held in Australia. As was the custom, the Olympic flame was lighted in Olympia, months before the games started, and the lighted torch was flown half way across the globe to Darwin, in Australia's Northern Territory. From Darwin, the flame was sent by airplane to Cairns, in Queensland, from where the torch was carried on foot by various torchbearers via cities along the East Coast such as Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and finally, to Melbourne, the host city. Along the way, runners were troubled by heat, soaked in torrential rain, and the torch itself broke when it fell to the ground in Lismore. Then, in Sydney, something funny happened.

Australian junior mile world record holder, Ron Clarke, lights the cauldron in Melbourne to signal the beginning of the 1956 Summer Olympics. Photo: XVI Olympiad Melbourne 1956/Carrying the Torch

It was November 18 and the mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills, was waiting to receive the flame from cross-country running champion, Harry Dillon. After receiving the flame, Hills was to make a short speech and then pass the flame on to another runner, Bert Button.

A crowd of 30,000 lined the streets waiting for Dillon to arrive, and the press was out in full force with photographers and cameraman ready to record the historic occasion. At 9:30 AM, a young man appeared dressed somewhat bizarrely in grey trousers and a white shirt, holding a torch. A cheer went up from the crowd. The police shepherded him towards the mayor and the athlete thrust the torch into his hands. The torch bearer’s early arrival took Hills by surprise, and without taking a look at the torch, Hills went straight to the podium for the speech.

As Hills began to speak, for the first time, his eyes went to the torch he was holding. Hills realized to his horror that it was not the Olympic torch, but a crudely constructed replica. The stalk was a chair leg painted silver. On the top was a plum pudding can, inside of which a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear was burning with a sooty flame. The mayor looked around for the runner, but the man had already disappeared, melting away into the surrounding crowd.

The mayor regained his composure and addressed the crowd: “That was a trial run. Our friends from the university think things like this are funny. It was a hoax by somebody. I hope you are enjoying the joke.”

However, the crowd did not think it was funny. They became unruly. They started milling around the street excitedly because half of them did not understand what just happened. In the crush of people, women began screaming for the safety of their children. Eventually a police convoy had to be called up to clear the path for the real Harry Dillon.

Possibly the only surviving photograph of Barry Larkin carrying the fake torch.

The man behind the prank was Barry Larkin, a veterinary student at St. Johns College at Sydney University. Larkin and his friends conceived the prank as a way of protest against the torch relay, which they felt was being given too much reverence considering it was invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Originally, Larkin wasn't supposed to have been the bearer of the flaming underwear. Their plan was to have another student, dressed in conventional white shorts and a white top, to carry the fake torch. But the runner was making too much tomfoolery and the blazing underwear fell out. One of the students then gave the responsibility to Larkin, who wasn’t even prepared for the run, hence his casual attire.

Few people knew what the actual runner, Harry Dillon, looked like. When they saw a young man running with a torch, the crowd just assumed Larkin was the real thing, and even the police escorted him along the way. Larkin later recalled in an interview what the experience felt like:

The noise was quite staggering. There were flashes of photography. I felt very strange because I knew I was carrying a fake torch. The only thing I could think about was what do I do when I got there. I was helped by Pat Hills. I just turned around and walked back down the steps, through the crowd and onto a tram and back to college.

Back at his college, Larkin was given a hero's reception. Even the rector of the college congratulated him. Larkin went on to become a successful veterinary surgeon.

The fake torch ended up in the possession of John Lawler, a man who had been travelling with the relay in a car. He stored it for years beneath his bed, until it was thrown away when he was tidying his house.


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